Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987

In Grove City College v. Bell (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Department of Education could sanction only part of the college for refusing to comply with the requirements of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), a federal statute that was designed to provide gender equity in athletic programming in higher education. Dissatisfied with this outcome, Congress basically superseded the Court’s judgment by enacting the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 over the veto of President Ronald Reagan. This act extended the protections of Title IX and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to institution-wide operations rather than just those departments, programs, or components receiving federal financial aid. In light of the impact that the act has had on American colleges and universities, this entry examines the litigation in Grove City that led up to the act’s enactment and discusses its key features. 

Background

Grove City College is a private coeducational institution that was founded in 1876 by Isaac Ketler, a conservative Christian clergyman and educator. It has retained its conservative religious orientation, independence, and dedication to the freedom of individuals as well as to the free market economy. Because the college operates on a balanced budget, it remains virtually debt-free. The college seeks to maintain institutional autonomy by refusing to accept state and federal financial assistance. It thus seeks to demonstrate that institutions of higher education can offer affordable programs without government funding or mandates. Arguing that Title IX constituted an unconstitutional imposition of federal control on its students, college officials challenged federal oversight in Grove City College v. Bell (1984)

The dispute in Grove City arose because some of its students received Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (BEOGs), a form of federal financial assistance. Officials at the United States Department of Education (ED) determined that the acceptance of these grants by students constituted federal financial assistance to the college, thereby triggering the application of Title IX’s nondiscrimination requirements. Consequently, officials at the ED asked administrators at the college to sign an Assurance of Compliance form ensuring that they would meet the requirements of Title IX. 

College officials refused to sign the Assurance of Compliance form, because they believed that the institution did not directly receive federal financial support. However, many of the colleges’ students received BEOGs through its athletic department’s alternative disbursement system. When college officials continued to refuse to sign the compliance forms, the ED initiated administrative proceedings to declare the college and its students ineligible to receive BEOGs. 

As a result of the administrative proceeding, the ED terminated financial assistance until such time as college officials signed the Assurance of Compliance form. In response to a suit filed by college officials and four of their students, a federal trial court in Pennsylvania held that while the students’ BEOGs constituted federal financial assistance, the ED could not terminate the aid due to institutional refusal to sign the Assurance of Compliance form. However, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in favor of the ED. The court decided that the funds could be withheld in order to force college officials to sign the Assurance of Compliance. Unhappy with the result, the college appealed to the Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court’s judgment in Grove City, affirming the Third Circuit’s judgment in favor of the ED, created an all but immediate firestorm of controversy. However, although the Court found that the ED could terminate funding, its analysis maintained that funds could be withheld only for the grant program that was subject to Title IX if institutional officials refused to sign the Assurance of Compliance form indicating their willingness to follow the dictates of the statute. In so doing, the Court left itself open to criticism by its opponents for its refusal to allow the ED to sanction to the entire institution. Displeased by the outcome in Grove City, Congress essentially superseded it three years later with the enactment of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, thereby interpreting Title IX as it was originally written rather than the way in which the Court had narrowed its otherwise broad institution-wide application. 

The Civil Rights Restoration Act

The Civil Rights Restoration Act was the culmination of decades of legislation and the work of activist groups who used the controversy that Grove City College generated to further prohibit the discrimination that Title VI sought to outlaw in programs receiving federal financial assistance. Although introduced in 1984, the bill was unable to gain congressional approval due to political factors; the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed the bill, but it was stalled in the Republicancontrolled Senate. Further, Roman Catholic bishops lobbied against its passage, fearing that provisions in the original version of the bill dealing with abortion would apply to educational institutions and Catholic hospitals. When the Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1987, they again sought to pass the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

The Civil Rights Restoration Act began with the acknowledgment that the Supreme Court’s decision in Grove City unduly narrowed or cast doubt on the broad application of Title IX and three additional federal laws with considerable impact on colleges and universities—Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 (ADA), and Title VI—that were designed to fight discrimination involving recipients of federal financial assistance. Section 504 forbids discrimination against otherwise qualified individuals with impairments who can participate if they receive reasonable accommodations. The ADA outlaws discrimination based on age. Title VI, the broadest of the three laws, prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in schools, public places, and employment.

Aware of the extent of these statutes, Congress found it necessary to take legislative action to restore their prior consistent and long-standing support of broad, institution-wide application of those laws, as reflected in federal regulations administered by the executive branch. The act passed both houses and was sent to President Reagan, who promptly vetoed the law. However, the Senate voted 73–24 to override the veto while the House voted similarly 292–133. The act went into effect on March 22, 1988. The act is enforced through the authority of the Office of Civil Rights in the ED.

The Civil Rights Restoration Act makes it clear that all departments and elements of institutions or organizations that receive federal financial funds must comply, without exception, with its antidiscrimination provisions. In this way, Congress was essentially able to protect Title VI and extend its coverage to such important statutes for colleges and universities as Title IX, Section 504, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Even so, it is important to recognize that the act does not change any of these statutes. Rather, it returns their coverage to the original scope that was intended when each was enacted.

Since the enactment of the Civil Rights Restoration Act, the federal government has created new federal agencies that have issued many regulations requiring institutions of higher education receiving federal funds to sign compliance forms ensuring that they are satisfying its provisions. To the extent that officials at colleges and universities follow the law, then the act’s most significant impact has been on Title IX by restoring its far-reaching provisions to campuswide programming.

Robert J. Safransky

See also Higher Education Act; Loans and Federal Aid; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Further Readings

  • Graham, H. D. (1988). The storm over Grove City College: Civil rights regulation, higher education and the Reagan administration. History of Education Quarterly, 38(4), 407–429.
  • Hendrickson, R. M., Lee, B., & Olswang, S. G. (1990). The impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1987 on higher education. Education Law Reporter, 60, 671–690. 

Legal Citations

  • Age Discrimination Act of 1975, 42 U.S.C. § 6107.
  • Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, Pub. L. No. 100-259, 102 Stat. 28.
  • Grove City College v. Bell, 465 U.S. 555 (1984).
  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, 29 U.S.C. §§ 794 et seq.
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d(4a).
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681.